As the Bombardier CRJ aircraft sharply banked right, one half of the packed aircraft let out gasps of disbelieving awe. With the pilot preparing the final approach to the Gaggal airport, the Dhauladhar Range appeared majestically on the left, a solid chunk of mountain capped by a liberal sprinkling of what from a distance appeared to be powdery snow.
The plane tilted this way, then that before the pilot steadied the aircraft, and set it down on the tarmac, the wheels rising once on touchdown, then settling back to grip the surface and ease to a half in front of the arrival terminal. All this while, you just couldn’t peel your eyes off the towering natural edifice that once again served as a humbling reminder of the awesome power of mighty nature, and of our own mortal smallness.
Bending and weaving and stumbling through the narrow aisle and the six steps to set foot on terra firma, you still can’t look elsewhere but at the arresting spectacle. It’s just as well that the pilot has done multiple sorties to and from Gaggal!
Dharamsala is an unlikely venue for an international cricket match – for any cricket match, for that matter. Rugged terrain with plenty of slopes and inclines, twisting, winding, narrow but well-kept roads, and a general air of peace and tranquillity is exactly what you would expect below the seat of the Dalai Lama. The sound of leather on willow is almost incongruous, shattering the still and the quiet, but there is no disputing the fact that it is cricket that has put this quaint, near-anachronistic town on the world map.
Anurag Thakur might currently find himself out of favour so far as cricket administration goes, but it was his vision, his dynamism and his energy that resulted in a world-class cricketing stadium replacing what used to be acres and acres of stone. The HPCA Stadium is one of the more modern, well-thought out and beautifully maintained cricketing centres in the country, the spectacular backdrop never ceasing to amaze even during the constant pow-wow between bat and ball, in the searing cauldron that international cricket is.
The outdoor nature of the sport, and the fact that somehow, enterprising individuals manage to identify opportunities where others find obstacles, has thrown up several breathtaking facilities across the world. Each one of them has nature as the underlying theme, as the bedrock that lends charm and allure and a touch of romance to the proceedings. Even during the most intense passage of play, a little look upwards is a nerve-settling experience, at once calming and inspiring.
The HPCA Stadium has to be one of the prettiest international cricket grounds in the world. The setting perforce commands that status, like Newlands in Cape Town does, for instance. Or the Galle International Stadium in the Sri Lankan port city which, despite being ravaged by the tsunami of 2004, has risen like the proverbial Phoenix, a testament to man’s determination and resolve.
In itself, Newlands makes for a glorious setting, the beautiful outfield and the modern stands that alternate with the laidback grassy knolls allowing for not just a day at the cricket, but also a family outing, a picnic if you like with entertainment guaranteed, especially if you are at a 20-over biff. As you watch the action from the press box, you notice plumes of white-black smoke rising to your right – from the Castle brewery adjacent to the ground. You don’t necessarily have to follow the trail of the smoke to catch your breath. The Table Mountain overhangs the ground, an extraordinary natural masterpiece with a flat top from where the mountain derives its name.
For three long, flat kilometres, the table-top stretches across the vast expanse of the sky, holding its own in the face of its more daunting natural colleague. It is almost as if it is keeping a close eye on the proceedings below. At the first sign of the spirit of the game being breached, it would seem, the clouds gather above the mountain and a cold wind blows across the ground, bringing the jackets and the beanies out even as the players drape themselves in sweaters and their hands snake into the cosy confines of their pockets. “Behave yourselves, boys, or else,” would appear to be the loud, unspoken message. No wonder Newlands throws up extraordinary cricket matches but seldom ill-tempered ones.
Also in the southern hemisphere but thousands of miles away are two venues on different sides of the Tasman Sea that can lay claim to being among the most scenic, picturesque grounds anywhere. Tasmania has produced some of Australia’s finest cricketers, though in itself, it doesn’t have the richest, most storied cricketing legacy. But as beautiful as the Adelaide Oval is, as impressive a structure as the MCG is and as steeped in history as the SCG is, no venue in Australia can best the Bellerive Oval for landscaping marvel.
Less than 30 years old, the Bellerive Oval lies to the eastern shore of the Derwent River, and is used not just for cricket but also for Aussie Rules Football. Packed to capacity, it can seat 15,000 huddling spectators who, even if they are locals, must alternate between the eye-popping beauty around them and the action out in the middle. The tranquil water shoots off a cold breeze, but the occasional physical discomfort is more than compensated by the setting, right out of a picture book.
Over in the South Island in New Zealand lies the Queenstown Events Centre, in the foothills of the mountain range appropriately named The Remarkables. This has everything, really – the mountain, Lake Wakatipu nearby, and an airport from where tiny aircraft and giant ones take off, shattering the peace and quiet and bringing you back from dreamland.
Arnos Vale in St Vincent, in the Caribbean, is another jaw-dropping creation, the airport just behind the press box and the Caribbean Sea a little distance away in front of you. You can all but picture a massive blow from Chris Gayle or Brendon McCullum or Shahid Afridi landing in the sea, so close does the water body appear to the venue lying snug tight in the middle of an island that is only 29 kilometres long and 18 kilometres wide.
Which brings us to the Galle International Stadium. The clock in the town centre where time stands frozen is a grim reminder of the havoc nature – unforgiving, furious nature – can wreak. The stadium structure lay buried under a sea of water after the tidal waves of December 2004, cricket not even a distant thought for a people whose lives had been irreparably altered by the giant tides and the sweeping force of an irate outer force. Today, the stadium stands proud, the historic Galle Fort standing guard between the stadium and the Indian Ocean. Cargo ships massive and freighters medium float dreamily, distantly; avid cricket lovers and lovers of a different type clamber on to the fort itself for a bird’s eye view of the cricket, their backs to the ocean but enjoying the sun on the backs.
On Saturday (March 25), Dharamsala will join Cape Town and Hobart and Galle as a Test venue, a jaw-dropping combination of nature’s unalloyed beauty and man’s desire to maximise a god-given gift. Having held a diet of limited-overs cricket, the HPCA Stadium will look even prettier in white.